Friday, March 1, 2013

Anterooms by Richard Wilbur -- A Review

Anterooms by Richard Wilbur – A Review

It’s Richard Wilbur’s birthday today; born March 1, 1921.  He’s in his 90’s and still writing poetry. 

Wilbur’s latest book is “Anterooms”, published in 2010.  I have commented on Richard Wilbur’s poetry before.  I am particularly intrigued by Wilbur’s development of what I call the “haiku stanza poem”.  In my previous post on Wilbur I spoke of such poems as ‘Thyme Flowering Among Boulders’.  It was, therefore, a great pleasure for me that when I recently got around to reading “Anterooms”, to discover that there are six haiku stanza poems in the collection.  That’s more haiku stanza poems than in his “Collected Poems: 1943 – 2004”.  For haiku poets, and syllabic poets in general, this is a wonderful gift. 

Three of the six haiku stanza poems continue the nature-centered focus of Wilbur’s previous haiku stanzas: “A Measuring Worm”, “Pasture Poem”, and “Young Orchard”.  “Measuring Worm” is about a caterpillar climbing up a window screen.  Wilbur extracts from this observation a truth about the human condition:

Although he doesn’t know it,
He will soon have wings,

And I too don’t know
Toward what undreamt condition
Inch by inch I go.

In “Young Orchard” Wilbur writes of orchard trees in the wind:

Nodding one and all
To one another, as they
Rise again and fall,

Swept by fluttering
So that they appear a great
Consort of sweet strings.

And “A Pasture Poem” is about the humble thistle:

This upstart thistle
Is young and touchy; it is
All barb and bristle

These three haiku stanza poems continue with the traditional nature-centered and seasonal focus of Wilbur’s previous haiku stanzas.

In the other three stanza poems, Wilbur brings the haiku stanza form to other topics.  There is a meditation on Ecclesiastes 11.1, “Cast thy bread upon the waters”, and a beautiful “Psalm”.  The “Psalm” opens with a celebratory feeling:

Give thanks for all things
On the plucked lute, and likewise
The harp of ten strings

And then at the conclusion there is a turn:

Then, in grave relief,
Praise too our sorrows on the
Cello of shared grief.

My favorite is ‘Anterooms’, the title poem for the collection.  It is a contemplation on time:

Out of the snowdrift
Which covered it, this pillared
Sundial starts to lift,

Able now at last
To let its frozen hours
Melt into the past

The middle verses talk about the strange way that time can ‘dilate’; how instants can seem to take a long time while entire years feel like a moment.  Then Wilbur concludes with a shift to dream time:

Dreams, which interweave
All our times and tenses, are
What we can believe:

Dark they are, yet plain,
Coming to us now as if
Through a cobwebbed pane

Where, before our eyes,
All the living and the dead
Meet without surprise.

These are beautifully crafted poems.  Wilbur continues with his expert use of rhyme and the careful balance of rhyme defined run-on lines with lines where the rhyme and the grammar come together to produce a strong sense of cadence and closure.

In searching online, I came across an interview with Wilbur where he discusses how he came to compose in haiku stanzas:

Interviewer:  Regarding your later poems, the ones that have been appearing recently in The New Yorker, I would think a lot of people would say this poetry ranks with the very best of your work, because it is distilled, almost haiku-like.  I don’t know if that’s the right term, but there’s a brevity; it is more spare and yet it’s evocative.

Wilbur:  It is sparer than my poetry used to be, and I think part of it is that though I can’t explain why, I’ve taken to using the haiku as a paragraph or a stanza in poetry.  Well – I do know how it happened.  A number of years ago I wanted to write a poem about my herb garden and the behavior of thyme and rocks in it, and I started out the poem by saying, “This, if Japanese, would . . .”, and I had a couple of lines talking about how Japanese gardens often represent mountain ranges and natural phenomena in miniature, and I found myself writing this about Japanese gardens in an adaptation of haiku poem rhyming the first and third lines. [The poem is “Thyme Flowering Among Rocks,” from the 1969 collection, Walking to Sleep: New Poems and Translation.]  And I rather liked the enforced sparseness of that.

[The full interview can be found at]

It is intriguing to me how Wilbur’s adaptation of syllabic haiku led to a more focused, more spare, presentation.  The results are immensely attractive.  It is my feeling that Wilbur’s haiku stanzas have made a significant contribution to English Language Haiku.  Wilbur has shown how the Haiku form and esthetic can be expanded into a longer presentation.  Wilbur’s haiku stanzas differ from haiku sequences in that the stanzas constitute a single poem.  A haiku sequence is an arrangement of individual haiku each of which can be read on its own.  But because Wilbur uses run-on lines, and because there is a thematic unity, and because there is an arc to the poem from the opening stanza to its conclusion, the individual stanzas do not stand on their own; rather each stanza is a part of the whole.  I believe that this has great potential for English Language Haiku.

“Anterooms” also contains beautiful lyrics and a number of translations from the French, Latin, and Russian.  Wilbur is well-known for his superb translations.  This is a beautiful volume of poetry from a mature poet whose mastery of poetic craft is simply unsurpassed.  For haiku poets, “Anterooms” offers new vistas of possibilities for their craft.

Richard Wilbur
ISBN: 9780547358116

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